The essay below is adapted from remarks delivered at The First Herzl Conference on Contemporary Zionism held in Jerusalem on October 30.
With the founding of Jerusalem and the building of the First Temple more than 3,000 years ago, King David and his son King Solomon united in one place the political and spiritual capitals of the Jewish people. Centuries later, after the Babylonian destruction of both city and temple in 586 BCE, followed in turn by the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus 50 years later and the restoration of the exiles to their land, the shining city on the hill would be rebuilt and its functions reunited—only to suffer a much more devastating obliteration by the Romans in 70 CE.
Since 1948, and especially since 1967, Jews all over the world have been blessed to be alive during the third historical moment when this same unity of the political and the spiritual has once again been realized in Jerusalem, Israel.
In addressing here the monumental contribution made to this blessing by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), and the obligation laid upon all of us to preserve it, I write not as a professional historian—on the subject of Herzl’s achievement, readers of Mosaic will be familiar with expert essays by Martin Kramer, Daniel Polisar, Allan Arkush, and others—but as an actively engaged layman, a lifelong Zionist, and, uncharacteristically for me, a worried Jewish American.
What is the difference between a natural event and a miracle? To the 18th-century founder of Ḥasidism known as the Baal Shem Tov, it was a matter only of relative frequency. By that criterion, the two-millennia span between the destruction of the Second Temple and the reestablishment of a sovereign Israel hardly suffices to disqualify the latter from being rightly seen as a miracle. I might also cite theological confirmation from a rather different source—namely, Webster’s dictionary, where a miracle is defined as an event so unnatural as to suggest divine involvement.
Indeed so. And yet this miracle could never have happened, and the blessing never realized, without the initiative and leadership of men and women here on earth who stepped out of the crowd to change history. In particular, one thinks of the vision and courage displayed by Herzl and by the Zionist pioneers who turned Herzl’s vision—his “dream” of a mass return of the Jews to their homeland—into magnificent reality. Such, after all, is the paradigmatic relationship in Judaism between man and God, going back to Abraham the faithful iconoclast who, the talmudic rabbis tell us, smashed his father’s idols and proselytized for faith in one God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.
The same paradigm, as again elaborated by rabbinic lore, was present at the Red Sea. The fleeing Israelites, trapped between the water and Pharaoh’s oncoming army, panicked; Moses prayed to God for a miracle; God, responding that this was no time for prayer, directed Moses to hold up his staff as a signal for human action. And then Naḥshon of the tribe of Judah, in a supreme act of faith, courage, and commitment, walked straight into the sea, the waters parted, and the Israelites poured through.
Herzl, the Naḥshon of our time, was followed by other Zionist heroes: Weizmann, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Meir, Begin, and so many more, not to forget the Christian Naḥshons like Balfour, Churchill, Truman, and others right up to this day who have enabled, sustained, and strengthened the miracle of modern Israel.
And what a miraculous reality has been made of Herzl’s vision by succeeding generations of Israelis—their leaders and their own everyday selves, sturdy, faithful, wondrously varied and diverse. One need only look around present-day Israel to behold the prophets’ vision of a great ingathering of Jews from the four corners of the earth—a culmination for which Jews prayed for centuries—fulfilled before one’s eyes.
As a country surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel has had to develop its own defenses, and it has done a brilliant job of it. At home, meanwhile, the country’s economy is world-class—ripe with globally significant innovation and entrepreneurship. Israeli culture is unique, rich, multifaceted—yielding scholarship, art, music, and literature of the highest caliber and producing movies and television shows that draw audiences in America and around the world. Religious observance flourishes with a vibrancy and intensity that only a Jewish state can incubate, even as differences and disputes rage over the place of religion within a modern liberal polity. And Israel’s diverse population miraculously speaks the same language as did its ancient forebears: the first society in history to be reincarnated both nationally and linguistically.
From the perspective of the Diaspora, the ways in which the traditions and values of Judaism pervade the country are simply remarkable. From the quiet that prevails everywhere on Yom Kippur, to the large percentage of Israelis who describe themselves as secular but celebrate Shabbat in some way, to the small but significant fact that Israel is the only country in the world where the glue on the back of postage stamps is certified as kosher, a unifying baseline Jewish consensus endures beneath surface controversies.
My own attachments to Israel—the idea, the dream, and the reality—have, if anything, only broadened and deepened over the decades since my childhood and youth in a Zionist family in America through my years as a pro-Israel U.S. senator. These days, my wife Hadassah and I visit the country more frequently as parents and grandparents of children who have made their home there. Thanks to them, we, too, in a popular American phrase, are “livin’ the dream.” And it is Herzl’s dream that we are living.
When Herzl made that dream his own life’s cause at the turn of the 20th century, he was aware that it was not new. As he wrote, “The idea that I have developed is a very old one; it is the restoration of the Jewish state.” And a number of Zionists or proto-Zionists had preceded him: rabbis like Yehudah Bibas, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Yehudah Alkalai, lay thinkers like Moses Hess and Leon Pinsker, the founder of the Ḥov’vei Tsion movement. But Herzl was the one who changed history.
What impelled him? Partly, the rising anti-Semitism of his time—on particularly virulent exhibit at the 1894 Dreyfus trial in France, which Herzl covered as a correspondent and in the course of which he witnessed the mobs in Paris chanting “Death to the Jews.” But if personal experience made him into a Zionist, as he later asserted, what made him the founder of modern political Zionism and its tireless advocate in the capitals of the world—the Naḥshon of the modern Jewish world—were the power of his pen and the indomitable courage of his actions.
The American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said of Winston Churchill that during World War II that great British leader had “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” In a similar way, Herzl mobilized the German language, and all the other languages into which his words were translated, and sent them into the political and diplomatic struggles against anti-Semitism and for the security of the Jewish people in a new state of their own.
In The Jewish State (1896), Herzl argued that the Jewish people, who possessed a nationality but were missing a nation-state of their own, had no choice but to leave Europe once and for all:
We have sincerely tried everything to merge with national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or their wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still described as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the land.
“No nation on earth has endured such struggles and sufferings as have we,” Herzl went on, yet “the strong among us defiantly return to their own.” Through the founding of a Jewish state, Jews could finally escape the curse of anti-Semitism, express their culture freely, and practice their religion without hindrance. He closed his manifesto with these words:
I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again.
The Jews who wish for a state will have it.
We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.
The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by or greatness.
And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will redound powerfully and beneficially to the good of humanity.
Herzl’s last literary work was a short 1902 novel about Zionism titled, perfectly, Altneuland, “Old-New Land”: in essence, a detailed prediction of what he believed Israel would become. In this envisioned state, modern Jewish culture would combine with the best of Europe’s civilizational heritage. A “Palace of Peace” would be established in Jerusalem to arbitrate international disputes, and the Temple would be rebuilt on modern principles.
Although, in Herzl’s imagined scenario, most Jewish citizens would not be religious, religion would be accorded a place of respect in public as well as in private. Similarly, although he foresaw that many languages, including Hebrew, would be spoken in the old-new land, he did not foresee that Hebrew would be reborn and become the national language. Nor did he foresee conflict between Jews and Arabs, assuming instead that the Arab inhabitants of the land would gratefully participate in the efforts of their new Jewish neighbors, practicing a third way between capitalism and socialism to improve its economic condition.
Needless to say, real life in the state of Israel does not conform with particular details of Herzl’s Zionist dream, and many of its prescriptions have been only partially actualized, if at all. But that its essence has indeed been realized is irrefutably true. The Jewish state of his dreams is alive and well in the 21st century. That is his enormous achievement, and that is what makes his dream prophetic. The rest is commentary.
What does this mean for America and for American Jews?
To start with a historical fact that remains relevant and important today: in America, too, there were adumbrations of Zionism before Herzl—notably in the form of Christian “restorationism.” The founding generation of Americans were mainly Calvinist in their orientation, and the Hebrew Bible was at the heart of their faith. Some of their writings (as a recent collection, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land, vividly demonstrates) carried foreshadowings of a Jewish return to the Holy Land.
More than 200 years ago, President John Adams, in correspondence with the Jewish proto-Zionist Mordecai Manuel Noah, spoke positively about the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; his sentiments were later echoed by his son John Quincy Adams. In 1842, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only religion born in the United States, dispatched an emissary to Palestine to pray there for the return of the Jews, for the restoration of Jerusalem as their capital, and for the rebuilding of the Temple. In 1891, a petition calling for an American effort to convey Palestine to the Jews, written by the preacher William Blackstone and signed by more than 400 leading American figures, was presented to President Benjamin Harrison and widely published.
Thus, when Herzl was writing his Zionist treatises and organizing the Zionist movement, numbers of Christians in America were ready to become its supporters. Since then, those numbers have grown much larger and more organized, led today by the millions of Americans who call themselves evangelicals and whose support remains a significant factor in electoral politics. In fact, as one of my Christian Zionist friends likes to remind me, there are in America millions more Christian Zionists than Jewish ones.
Which is hardly to say that, in Herzl’s day or soon thereafter, American Jews were uninspired or impassive. By 1917, when it came to securing American endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, the influence of Justice Louis Brandeis with President Woodrow Wilson proved decisive—and by that point Brandeis himself was an outspoken Zionist leader. But it’s certainly the case that the real growth in the numbers and intensity of American Jewish support came after the Holocaust, contributing significantly to President Truman’s all-important recognition of the state of Israel eleven minutes after independence was declared by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948.
Something else happened to us American Jews after 1948, and much more visibly after Israel’s lightning victory in the June 1967 war: Israel transformed our self-image, instilling in us greater pride and self-confidence. No longer seen as just a refuge and sanctuary in times of trouble, the Jewish state became a glowing, aspirational role model for many Jews who, even with all of the freedoms America offered its citizens, had still somehow felt they had to keep a low profile. The re-establishment, resilience, and vitality of the Jewish nation gave them, as it were, a green light to become more active in American life and more open in the defense of Jewish interests. Combined with Christian Zionist organizations and others, they produced a powerful, populist, bipartisan pro-Israel movement led by AIPAC that, in turn, helped Israel solidify its position as one of America’s most important and trustworthy allies.
These days, many are worried that bipartisan American support for Israel is collapsing. “Collapse” is too strong a word. But there are indeed places on the American political spectrum where support for Israel is clearly diminishing and storm clouds are gathering. Even as, overall, opinion polls continue to show strong majority support, underneath, more granularly, we see real attrition among liberals, Democrats, and younger people. This must be taken seriously by all who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Exhibit A: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, three leading Democratic presidential candidates, recently said that if elected they would consider withholding military aid to Israel if the Israeli government took steps they regarded as inconsistent with the two-state solution as they envisage it. Addressing J Street’s national conference in Washington, Sanders actually went farther; as president, he would say to Israel:
If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship with the people of Gaza. In fact, I think it is fair to say that some of the $3.8 billion [in annual American military aid] should go right now to humanitarian aid in Gaza.
What is most troubling about these statements is not that they challenge elements of Israeli policy; that has been happening for a long time and will continue. What is unprecedented is the spectacle of American presidential candidates threatening to withhold American aid, in language better aimed at a recalcitrant puppet than at a strong, trusted, and unfailingly staunch ally of the United States—and doing so, one has every reason to believe, on the basis of what they are hearing from potential Democratic primary voters.
Exhibit B: in New York’s Jewish Week, a millennial by the name of Aaron Freedman recently contributed an op-ed titled “Bernie Sanders is Seventy-Eight but He Represents American Jewry’s Future.” Here is the concluding paragraph:
I once was a committed Zionist who attended Jewish day school. As a young kid, I remember my pride in helping my Dad put up a Gore-Lieberman campaign poster. But like many of my peers, I became alienated with the injustices I saw political elites perpetrate in the U.S. and Israel, and by American Jewish organizations’ unwillingness to challenge them. Now, as a mostly secular Democratic Socialist, I am glad to have a presidential candidate [Bernie Sanders] who is not just Jewish, but Jewish like me. And, increasingly, Jewish like most of us.
These and other, similar American challenges to Herzl’s Zionist vision must be challenged in turn. Most American Jews have grown up with the state of Israel as a reality. They probably know that it was preceded by the Holocaust, but they almost certainly do not know about the raging European anti-Semitism of the late 19th century that motivated Herzl’s Zionism in particular and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty that Herzl did so much to inspire. Now, a latter-day version of that anti-Semitism, directed at the Jewish state and in practice at all Jews, has resurfaced in Europe and has even raised its head in America, to the point of thoroughly infecting advanced sectors of American opinion and, lately, penetrating American electoral politics itself.
Among young American Jews like the author of that column in the Jewish Week, there is a woeful if not willful ignorance of history, of the actuality of the state of Israel, and of Herzl, who had something of timeless pertinence to say about anti-Semitism. Whether or not it is too late to reason with these young American Jews and their peers—I persist in believing it is not—their misshapen ideas must be repudiated, and the still-rising generations behind them must be educated to confront the poison of anti-Jewish animus lest it spread to engulf them.
I’ve compared Herzl with Naḥshon. But if you look at Herzl’s life up till the mid-1890s, the fact that he would become the Naḥshon of modern Jewish history could never have been predicted. No less impossible is it to predict who will be the next Naḥshon. In the interval, it is up to every Israeli and to everyone who cares about Israel to respond with Herzlian frankness, vigor, and pride to anti-Semitism wherever, whenever, and by whomever it is promoted.
Miracles like Israel are not self-sustaining. In addition to a little divine involvement, they need continuous human support and unhesitating human action. If you will it, it is no dream, said the practical dreamer Herzl. It’s for us now to keep it alive.